Thought As A System
Thought As A System
In Thought As A System theoretical physicist David Bohm takes as his subject the role of thought and knowledge at every level of human affairs, from our private reflections on personal identity to our collective efforts to fashion a tolerable civilization.
Elaborating upon principles of the relationship between mind and matter first put forward in Wholeness and the Implicit Order, Dr. Bohm rejects the notion that our thinking processes neutrally report on what is ‘out there’ in an objective world.
He explores the manner in which thought actively participates in forming our perceptions, our sense of meaning and our daily actions.
He suggests that collective thought and knowledge have become so automated that we are in large part controlled by them, with a subsequent loss of authenticity, freedom and order.
In the 33 days of conversation with 50 seminar participants in Ojai, California, Dr. Bohm offers a radical perspective on an underlying source of human conflict, and inquires into the possibility of individual and collective transformation.
In Bohm’s view, we have inherited a belief that mind (or thought) is of an inherently different and higher order than matter.
This belief has nurtured a faith in what we call objectivity – the capacity to observe and report neutrally on some object or event, without having any effect on what we are looking at, or without being affected by it.
Historically, this perspective has given us a scientific and cultural world view in which isolated, fragmentary parts mechanically interact with one another.
Bohm points out that this fragmentary view corresponds to ‘reality’ in significant respects, but suggests that we have overextended our faith in the objectivist perspective.
Once we make the critical (and false) assumption that thought and knowledge are not participating in our sense of reality, but only reporting on it, we are committed to a view that does not take into account the complex, unbroken process that underlies the world as we experience it. To help bring into focus thought’s participatory nature, Bohm undertakes an extensive redefinition of thought itself.
To begin with, thought is not fresh direct perception. It is literally that which has been thought – the past, carried forward into the present. It is the instantaneous display of memory, a superimposition of images on to the active, living present.
On the one hand, the memory is what allows us to perform even the simplest of tasks, such as getting dressed in the morning.
On the other hand, memory is also responsible for various aspects of fear, anxiety or apprehension, and the actions that proceed from these memories.
Thought, then, is also inclusive of feelings, in the form of latent emotional experiences. Not only negative, painful emotions are folded into thought, but pleasurable ones as well. Indeed the whole spectrum of emotions as we typically experience them is seen by Bohm as thought related. The manner in which feeling and thought interpenetrate one another is central to Bohm’s view of the functioning of consciousness.
Throughout the mind and body, he says, they form a structure of neurophysiological reflexes. Through repetition, emotional intensity and defensiveness, these reflexes become ‘hard-wired’ in consciousness, to such an extent that they respond independently of our conscious choice.
If, for example, someone tells you that a member of your family is both ugly and stupid, you will most likely have instantaneous surges of adrenaline and blood pressure that are inseparable from your thought: “He is wrong! He is rude and malicious for saying such things!”. The thought ‘He is wrong’ will tend to justify and perpetuate the body surges. Likewise, the surges will tend to certify the thought.
In time, the experience will fade, but it is effectively stored in the memory of what becomes ‘thought’. There it waits to be instantly recalled the next time a similar situation is encountered.
In addition to emotions and reflexes, Bohm includes human artifacts in his definition of thought. Computer systems, musical instruments, cars, buildings – these are all illustrations of thought in its fixed, concrete form.
From Bohm’s perspective, to make a fundamental separation between thought and its products would be the equivalent of suggesting that whether a person is male or female is a separate phenomenon from the genetic process that determined the sex to begin with. Such a separation would in fact illustrate the very fragmentation under examination.
Finally, Bohm posits that thought and knowledge are primarily collective phenomena. Our common experience is that we have personal thoughts that come from our individual’self’. Bohm suggests that this is a culturally inherited sensibility that overemphasized the role of isolated parts. He inverts this view, noting that the ‘flow of meaning’ between people is more fundamental than any individual’s particular thoughts. The individual is thus seen as an idiosyncrasy (literally, ‘private mixture’) of the collective movement of values, meanings and intentions.
The essential relevance of Bohm’s redefinition of thought is the proposal that body, emotion, intellect, reflex and artifact are now understood as one unbroken field of mutually informing thought.
All of these components interpenetrate one another to such an extent, says Bohm, that we are compelled to see ‘thought as a system’ – concrete as well as abstract, active as well as passive,collective as well as individual.
Our traditional world view, in an attempt to maintain a simple, orderly image of cause and effect, does not take into account these subtler aspects of thought’s activity. This leads to what Bohm calls a ‘systemic fault’ in the whole of thought. The issue here, says Bohm, is that ‘thought doesn’t know it is doing something and then struggles against what it is doing”.
For example, flattery is a pleasing experience which usually sets up a reflex of receptivity toward the one who flatters. If Jane fails to flatter John when he expects her to, or takes advantage of him in some unpleasant way, John will attribute his subsequent bad feelings to something Jane did. He fails to see that he participated in constructing the reflex that produced not only good feelings, but the bad ones as well.
A similar process of incoherence is at work in the nation-state.
When the United States attributes diabolical characteristics towards various Middle East countries that thwart its easy access to oil, it is not taking into account its own central involvement in an international petroleum-based economy which quite naturally gives inordinate power to those who possess crude oil.
In this case, the reflexive response may be war. The feature common in both examples is the sense of being in control with an independent response. “I will get even with her.” or “We must demonstrate where the real power lies.”
In Bohm’s view, the real power is in the activity of thought.
While independence and choice appear to be inherent in our actions, we are actually being driven to agendas which in fact act faster than, and independent of, our conscious choice. Bohm sees the pervasive tendency of thought to struggle against its own creations as thecentral dilemma of our time. Consequently, we must now endeavour not only to apply thought, but to understand what thought is, to grasp the significance of its immediate activity, both in and around us. Is it possible then, to be aware of the activity of thought without acquiring a new agenda,namely, the intention to ‘fix’ thought?
Can we suspend our habit of defining and solving problems, and attend to thought as if for the first time? Such open learning, says Bohm, lays the foundation for an exploration of proprioception. Proprioception (literally, ‘self-perception’) is that which enables us to walk, sit, eat, or engage in any other daily activity without having to constantly monitor what we are doing. An instantaneous feedback system informs the body, allowing it to act without conscious control.
If we wish to scratch a mosquito bite on the back of our leg, it is proprioception that allows us to scratch the bite without (a) looking at our hand, (B) looking at our leg or (c) having the mistaken impression that someone else is scratching our leg.
Dr. Bohm points out that while proprioception of the body comes naturally, we not seem to have proprioception of thought.
If, however, mind and matter are indeed continuum, it is reasonable to explore the extension of physiological proprioception into the more subtle material activity of thought.
Bohm suggests that the immediacy and accuracy of bodily proprioception are inhibited at the level of thought due to the gross accumulation of reflexes, personified in the image of a ‘thinker’ – an interior entity who seems to look out on the world, as well as looking inwardly at emotions, thoughts and so on.
This thinker, says Bohm, is a product of thought rather than a transcendental entity; and the thinker is steadfastly committed to preserving some variation of its own reflexive structure.
Here the state of open learning is crucial for new understanding.
If the reflexive structure can simply be attended to rather than acted upon (as the thinker would be inclined to do), then the momentum which drives the reflexes is already being dissipated.
In this vein, Bohm outlines a series of practical experiments which call into awareness the interplay of words and feelings in the formation of reflexes. This conjunction of open learning and concrete experiments with the thought-feeling dynamic suggests the beginning of proprioception of thought.
Such proprioception is intimately related to that which Dr. Bohm refers to as ‘insight’. We often associate insight with the ‘aha!’ phenomenon of having suddenly grasped the significance of some puzzle or problem. Bohm’s notion of insight includes such particular instances, but extends to a much more general, and generative, level of appreciation.
He sees insight as an active energy, a subtle level of intelligence in the universe at large, of a different order from that which we commonly experience in the mind/matter domain. He suggests that such insight has the capacity to directly affect the structure of the brain, dispelling the ‘electrochemical fog’ generated by accumulated reflexes.
Quite unlike the memory-laden structure of the ‘thinker’ operating upon thought, proprioception provides a medium of appropriate subtlety for the activity of such insight. In this way, learning, proprioception and insight work together, with the potential to reorder our thought processes and bring about a general level of coherence unavailable to us through thought alone.
While all these experiments can be undertaken by individuals, Bohm points to a complementary mode of inquiry thought the process of group dialogue. He suggests that such meetings have no agenda, other than the intention to explore thought,and though a facilitator may be useful in the beginning, the meetings should be free ofauthority so that people speak directly to one another.
In groups of 20 to 40 people, the systemic and reflexive nature of thought can come clearly into focus, eliciting a wide range of responses from the participants.
Self-images, assumptions, and prejudices may all emerge, often with their attendant emotions – defensiveness, anger, fear and many others. The virtue of such approach, says Bohm, is that the group may be able to detect the flow of meaning passing amongst its members. This meaning may be the content of some particular subject; it may also be the quickened pulses that pass thought group as the result of conflict between two or more members. Such dialogue holds out the possibility of direct insight into the collective movement of thought, rather than its expression in any particular individual.
Bohm suggests that the potential for collective intelligence inherent in such groups could lead to a new and creative art form, one which may involve significant numbers of people and beneficially affect the trajectory of our current civilization.
Throughout Thought As A System Dr. Bohm emphasizes that the model of thought he puts forward is propositional.
Not only does he deny and final knowledge of these issues for himself, he claims that no such knowledge is even possible.
Such knowledge would be thought, which can only make approximate representations. Dr. Bohm often invoked Alfred Korzybski’s observation that any object of thought (including,for Bohm, thought itself) is both ‘more than what we think, and different’. None the less, as we do rely to a great extent on images and representations, a relatively accurate map of the process of though, based on clear observation and sound inferences, is surely more desirable than a flawed map.
It was Dr. Bohm’s intention that Thought As A System be approached as just such a propositional map, to be tested against direct life experiences, and measured by its veracity and its usefulness in reducing conflict and sorrow in the world at large.
—Thought As A System, Forward, Lee Nichol, Ojai, CA
What is inquiry?…why do we inquire?…Because there is something we do not understand; something is not working out right. As long as things are working our right there is no reason for a question. Then you raise a question. Where does the question come from? It must come from the same general mind which produced the situation that needed the inquiry—that is, we’ve been doing something wrong somewhere; our thoughts are wrong or our actions are wrong, and out of that mind we have made a question.
That question will contain presuppositions…These suppositions are largely unaware. By the time we become aware of them we can all them assumptions. We presuppose all sorts of things. You see, when I’ m going to walk on the floor I presuppose that it will support me, but it might not…as soon as you find out it’s not so, you must look again, and begin to see where your presuppositions are wrong, and change them. So in an inquiry, we are looking into our presuppositions.
Now the questions will, in the beginning, reflect the presuppositions that we have already…we ask what we might call a wrong question…part of the inquiry is to look at the question—to question the question…
Unfolding Meaning, pp. 33-4, David Bohm
…we all know that the world is in a difficult situation and has been for basically a long time; that we now have various crises in various parts of the world. We have…nationalism…People seem to have all sorts of hatred…religious hatreds or racial hatreds…People seem unable to get together to face common problems, such as the ecological one or the economic one.
So one begins to wonder what is going to happen to the human race. Technology keeps advancing with greater…power, either for good or destruction. And it seems that there is always this great danger of destruction…It’s sort of endemic; it’s not just something that occasionally happens. It’s in the whole situation.
…Either we go into a depression, which will help save the ecology, or we go into a boom, which will momentarily make us happy but will eventually ruin the ecology… the faster we go into prosperity, the faster we create all these other problems.
It seems that whichever way you turn, it doesn’t really work. Why not? Is there any way out? Can you imagine that a hundred or two hundred or five hundred years of this won’t lead to some gigantic catastrophe, either to the ecology or in some other way?
…People have been dealing with this piecemeal—looking at symptoms, saying that we’ve got to solve this problem or that problem. But there is something deeper, which people haven’t been considering, that is constantly generating these problems.
What is the source of all this trouble? This is what we really have been concerned with in all these dialogues…I’m saying that the source is basically thought. Many people would think that such a statement is crazy, because thought is the one thing we have with which to solve our problems. That’s part of our tradition. Yet it looks as if the thing we use to solve our problems is the source of our problems…
I’m saying the reason we don’t see the source of our problems is that the means by which we try to solve them are the source…I’m not suggesting that the achievements of thought are negligible…but there is another side to it which is leading to our destruction, and we have to look at that.
Now I’ll try to say what is wrong with thought…
One of the obvious things wrong with thought is fragmentation. Thought is breaking things up into bits which should not be broken up…
It seems very hard for human beings to accept seriously this simple fact of the effect of fragmentation….nations are established by thought…most of the nations of the Middle East were invented by the British or the French…what we are doing is establishing boundaries where really there is a close connection—that is what is wrong with fragmentation. And at the same time we are trying to establish unity where there isn’t any, or not very much.
We can also consider professional groups. In science, for instance, every little specialty is fragmented from every other one. People hardly know what is happening in a somewhat different field…knowledge is fragmented…
It seems strange…It really could be thought of as irrational…or perhaps crazy…
The more general difficulty with thought is that thought is participatory…thought is always doing a great deal, but it tends to say that it hasn’t done anything, that it is just telling you the way things are. But thought affects everything…It has affected all the trees, it has affected the mountains, the plains and the farms…
Thought has produced tremendous effects outwardly…But I want to say that you don’t decide what to do with information. The information takes over. It runs you. Thought runs you. Thought, however, gives the false information that you are running it, that you are the one who controls thought, whereas actually thought is the one who controls each one of us. Until thought is understood—better yet, more than understood, perceived—it will actually control us; but it will create the impression that it is just our servant, that it is just doing what we want it to do.
That’s the difficulty. Thought is participating and then saying it’s not participating. But it is taking part in everything.
…Another problem of fragmentation is that thought divides itself from feeling and from the body. Thought is said to be the mind; we have the notion that it is something abstract or spiritual or immaterial. Then there is the body, which is very physical. And we have emotions, which are perhaps somewhere in between. The idea is they are all different. And we experience them as different because we think of them as different…
There is a profound connection between the state of the body and the way you think.
All of this (fragmentation—seeing division where there is wholeness, wholeness where there is division) will tend to introduce quite a bit of confusion, or what I call ‘incoherence,’ into thinking or into actions because you will not get the results you expect. That’s a major sign of incoherence: you want to do something but it doesn’t come out the way you intend. That’s usually a sign you have some wrong information somewhere. The right approach would be to say; ‘Yes, that’s incoherent. Let me try to find out the wrong information and change it.’ But the trouble is, there is a lot of information in which people don’t do that.
This is another major feature of thought: thought doesn’t know it is doing something and then it struggles against what it is doing. It doesn’t want to know that it is doing it. And it struggle against the results, trying to avoid those unpleasant results while keeping on with that way of thinking. That is what I call sustained incoherence. There is also simple incoherence, which we can’t avoid having because thoughts are always incomplete—thought can never be complete… But when we find that what is happening is contradictory or confused or isn’t doing what we expect, then we should change our thoughts to reflect what is happening… When it comes to things that matter…it seems we generally don’t. Now this seems rather odd…
Nobody has the intention of producing this sort of situation. We are producing these situations contrary to our conscious intentions because there is another resistance going on of which we’re not very conscious.
Thought As A System, pp. 1-11
Thought As A System, pp. 52-55
Bohm: I’m proposing that this whole system works by a set of reflexes—that thought is a very subtle set of reflexes which is potentially unlimited; you can add more and more and you can modify your reflexes…Even the whole logical process, once it’s committed to memory, becomes a set of reflexes…There may be a perception of reason beyond reflexes, but anything perceived becomes sooner or later a set of reflexes…
I say that it’s useful to look at this as a system of reflexes. A reflex just operates, as we’ve seen in the case of knee-jerk. However we usually don’t think that thought is like the knee-jerk reflex. We think we are controlling thought and producing thought…I’m suggesting that is not generally so—that a vast part of our thought just comes from the reflex system. You only find out what the thought is after it comes out. Now, this really overturns a great deal of how we look at the mind or the personality or our entire cultural background.
…The question is this: can you become aware of the reflex character of thought—that it is a reflex, that it is a whole system of reflexes which is constantly capable of being modified, added to, changed? And we could say that as long as the reflexes are free to change then there must be some kind of intelligence of perception, something a bit beyond the reflex, which would be able to see whether it’s coherent or not. But when it get conditioned too strongly it may resist that perception; it may not allow it…
The point is that these reflexes serve us if they are not too rigid. And if they don’t work, if they are incoherent, we can drop them or they drop by themselves. On the other hand, when the reflex gets very strong and rigid it won’t be dropped.
I think there is a neurophysiological reason for that. Every thought involves some change in the chemistry of the system. A strong thought with a lot of emotion, for instance, involves a bigger change. Or a constant repetition builds up the change. And both together make a very powerful effect. It’s been observed that the nerves in the brain don’t quite touch each other, but there are synapses that connect them. Researchers say that experience, perception, thought, and so on, establish synapse connections. We may assume that the more you repeat a pattern, the stronger those connections become; after a while they get very strong, very hard to shake. You could say something happens in the chemistry, in the physics, in the neurophysiological process…the reflexes get conditioned very strongly, and they are very hard to change.
And they also interfere. A reflex may connect to the endorphins and produce an impulse to hold that whole pattern further. In other words, it produces a defensive reflex. Not merely is it stuck because it’s chemically so well built up, but also there is a defensive reflex which defends against evidence which might weaken it. Thus it all happens, one reflex after another after another. It’s just a vast system of reflexes. And they form a ‘structure’ as they get more rigid.
Q: Isn’t this the evolution of learning? Isn’t this also how our bodies have evolved?
Bohm: It may be. But now the question is: are those reflexes coherent? According to the theory of evolution, incoherent systems don’t last very long. This is called ‘natural selection.’ In thought, however, we seem to be able to keep up these incoherent systems of reflexes, at least for quite a while. Sometimes the people who have them might not live very long, but in our society we have arranged conditions where we can go on with a lot of incoherence without actually leading to a selection process…
…Now, we could say that an intelligent response on seeing incoherence would be to stop it, to suspend it and begin to look for the reason for the incoherence and then to change it. But I say there is a defensive incoherence. An incoherent train of thought which gets attached to endorphins will typically defend itself, because you will feel very uncomfortable when it is questioned; the questioning starts to remove the endorphins…
Q:…Can we use the word ‘reaction’ with the reflexes? Are these reflexes all physiological or is the reaction psychological?
Bohm: I want to emphasize that it is not just psychological, Every reaction is also neurophysiological. That’s why I prefer to call it a reflex. Every reaction of thought is always simultaneously emotional, neurophsyiological, chemical and everything else. It is all one system. In some cases that may not be important, but there is always a slight effect at the very least. And when there’s a powerful conditioning the effect is very great. I mean, when you just have a thought such as ‘the cup is on the table’ it’s a rather minor effect; but some physical effect is going on just to say that.
Q: Could we say that anything we do or think that is out of harmony with the whole would be incoherence?
Bohm: It depends on what we mean by ‘the whole.’ It’s hard to give a positive definition, but the basic sign of incoherence is that you’re getting some result which you don’t intend and don’t want. And the other signs are contradiction, conflict, stress, all those things….
Q: And also our action to try to get out of the confusion would be incoherent?
Bohm: We may have an inappropriate action. Within the system, the action to get out is part of the trouble….
…the universe as a whole is coherent, and anything incoherent we do is just part of the coherence of the universe when we look at it that way, even though if we do something crazy we will get a result we don’t want.
…You could say that in the universe as a whole there’s no reason to say there is inchorence. But we, in our particular structure, are not coherent. And a species that is not coherent with itself or its environment doesn’t survive. That’s part of the coherence of the universe. It is precisely because the universe is coherent that an incoherent species doesn’t survive.
Q: Questioning our incoherence may also be part of our coherence. It could be the universal coherence that’s stepping in and saying: ‘Wait a minute. This isn’t working.’
Bohm: It could be that’s part of it too. The question is then: which is going to prevail – this questioning or the old conditioning habits?
Q: Would you say that at the moment of conception, each human being is pretty much predestined to have this incoherence?
Bohm: I think it’s built into the nature of thought that this is a possibility. And by now we have built up a society and a culture which implants it in everybody, even if it were not there. But because thought is reflex, the minute there were creatures who could think that much, there was the possibility that though wouldn’t behave coherently.
Now, I’ve outlined to you the possibility of conditioning the reflex – by repetition, by powerful emotions, by defensive methods, and other ways. And when it’s strongly conditioned, the reflex could get stuck. Then there would come a time when that reflex could get stuck. There there would come a time when that reflex was no longer appropriate but wouldn’t be able to change; therefore, that would produce incoherence. If something changes and reflex doesn’t, you have incoherence…
Q: What are the criteria for coherence?
Bohm: There’s no unique criterion for coherence, but you have to be sensitive to incoherence. And as we’ve said, the test for incoherence is whether you’re getting the results you don’t want….
Q: Is the incoherence in the DNA, and are we born with that?
Bohm: Not this particular incoherence of thought. The possibility of our thinking is somehow in the DNA; as is the possibility that our thinking could go wrong. And somehow in the history of the human race that has happened. We don’t know whether it was inevitable. But considering the nature or our brain, we can see that it looks likely that this sort of thing could happen…